No sport is more obsessed with family trees than thoroughbred racing. Who's your dad? Your mom? Your grandfather? Your grandmother? If we've properly bred your sire's (dad's) endurance with your dam's (mom's) speed, could we have a Kentucky Derby winner on our hands? Or, even better, a Triple Crown champion?
Success doesn't always break along bloodlines, of course. At least they don't always produce the champion you think they should. But a horse's lineage has intrigued and baffled breeders of the animal for centuries, if not longer.
Yet the sport of kings also often has been tied to human family trees, to generations of horsemen and women who value the four-legged wonder for both its majesty and its money-making ability.
And so it was that Signal Mountain resident Gay Tucker entered her sister Susan Colmore's farmhouse on Lookout Mountain late Saturday afternoon dressed in the jockey cap, racing goggles and the old gold racing silks of their late father Julian "Judy" Walden's Walden Racing business.
The reason for breaking out such an outfit? Their nephew Elliott Walden — president of WinStar Farm — was about to watch the operation's Justify attempt to become just the 13th Triple Crown winner in history by winning the Belmont Stakes later that evening.
"We'd just been to a family reunion the week before in Midway (Kentucky)," Susan recalled Tuesday afternoon. "I told Elliott I was nervous. He just smiled and said, 'What have you got to be nervous about?'"
Nothing, as it turned out. Befitting his name, Justify coasted to victory about as easily as any Triple Crown winner except Secretariat ever has.
"It's just been so much fun," Colmore said. "No one in our family has ever been tied to a Triple Crown winner before."
But even the Chattanooga branch of the family — Elliott is the son of Susan's and Gay's late brother Ben — secured ties to Justify during the first Triple Crown race, the Kentucky Derby, when Gay's granddaughter Cate Tucker, a rising sophomore at GPS, took in the Run for the Roses as a guest of Elliott's daughter Megan.
"I was so nervous," Cate said of Saturday. "There was so much at stake. I was on my way back from Nashville that afternoon, and I was afraid I was going to end up having to watch it on my phone. But I got home just as they were loading him in the starting gate. He's always started off strong and he did again. I started texting Megan as soon as the race was over. We were texting most of the night. We had a hard time getting to sleep."
For the Kentucky Waldens, the ones spread around Lexington and nearby communities Versailles and Midway, it all started decades ago with the Parrish family. Daughter Lily Parrish married William Julian "Judy" Walden, the couple raising their four children — Ben, Gay, Bud and Susan — on their Shadowlawn Farm. Ben would later start Dearborn Farm in Midway, where he and his wife Margaret brought up their three children: Hallie Gay, Ben Jr. and Elliott.
Susan went on to marry Bill Pettway, a native of Chattanooga, and settled here in the 1960s. Gay married Jack Tucker and they moved here in 1972 when Pro Group was transferred to the Scenic City. Bill Pettway passed away in the early 1990s, Susan later marrying Jo Colmore, who raises cattle on the same farm where she raises horses.
Of course, when Cate called her Aunt SuSu from the Derby, she told her, "SuSu, these horses don't look like the ones in your barn. The barns don't look like yours, either."
Replied Susan: "Nor should they."
Asked what was less likely, grooming a Triple Crown winner or two sisters from central Kentucky both winding up in Chattanooga despite having no previous ties here, Susan replied, "It's all so farfetched, it's not even funny."
But there were 16 family members Saturday at Susan and Jo's farm, some dressed in vintage racing silks, all pulling for Justify, at least partly because Elliott Walden was wise enough to ask Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert to train a colt that never had entered a race until mid-February.
Now the syndicate of WinStar Farm, the China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners LLC and Starlight Racing share ownership in the magnificent chestnut colt that is projected to generate as much as $75 million in stud fees, which would make him the ultimate American gigolo.
And how does Susan Colmore think her late brother would feel about his son being tied to a Triple Crown winner?
"He would be blown away," she said. "He'd be so proud."
Saturday's aftermath has blown away the whole family. Elliott has done more TV interviews than President Trump the past few days. His daughter Megan, a huge Kentucky basketball fan, got to celebrate the win with UK coach John Calipari and his son Brad. There's even the odd dynamic of Elliott sharing this Triple Crown moment with Baffert, whose heart Walden broke in 1998 when his Victory Gallop nipped Baffert's Real Quiet at the wire in the Belmont, denying Real Quiet that year's Triple Crown, though Baffert did eventually win the Triple with American Pharoah in 2015.
Finally, our town should be at least a little blown away to have a forever tie to Justify.
"But even if he wasn't in our family," Susan said, "I'd still be cheering for him as loud as I could, because he's such a special horse."
One of the 13 most special horses in thoroughbred racing history.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com